Photo Credit: Ed Kolenovsky/AP
In my last post, I said I wanted to do some writing on the history of right-wing extremism in the military and I suppose that when writing on a website whose tagline is “remember your oath,” it’s probably best practice to follow through on things you say you’re going to do. I spent a lot of time ruminating on where to start this post, which will almost certainly be a multi-part endeavor. There is an incredible amount of history and context here, much of which I will have to leave out since I am not writing a book about it (well, not yet, anyway). Thus, rather than give an all-encompassing history lesson, my purpose throughout this series will be to demonstrate the gravity of the threat of white nationalism in the military and veteran community.
I would also like to acknowledge that, while I am only a student and veteran blogging about a topic that I have a personal interest in, there are many professional journalists and researchers out there doing much more in-depth analysis that you should check out. Much of the information I will be sharing with you is a summary of information found in several pieces including but not limited to: the audiobook The War on Everyone, by journalist and podcaster Robert Evans, the book Bring the War Home, by researcher and historian Kathleen Belew, the website and newsletter The Informant, created by researcher and journalist Nick Martin, and the book Gangs and the Military by the lecturer and former CID investigator Dr. Carter F. Smith. I highly recommend all of these works. I’d also like to suggest Evans’ podcast Behind the Bastards, which was not a source for any particular information in this post per se. However, it’s a podcast I really enjoy that talks about tangentially related topics, including Saddam Hussein’s side gig as an erotic fiction writer, which seems worth mentioning if for no other reason than it’s hilarious.
I want to start this journey off with a quote from the introduction to Bring the War Home, which Belew ends with the following: “War is not neatly contained in the space and time legitimated by the State; it reverberates in other terrains and lasts long past armistice. It comes home in ways bloody and unexpected.”
The United States entered the Vietnam war in 1965, and it was the first time this country sent a truly racially integrated force into combat. Back home, the Civil Rights Movement was in full swing, and racial integration was one of the most controversial issues in America. It is often said that the military has been one of the most racially diverse and integrated public institutions. While that isn’t exactly false, the truth is more complicated than that. Racial integration by policy does not immediately eliminate the social ills of racism; the biases and prejudices of the citizenry that made up the recruiting pool could not and cannot just be waved away by executive action. If it is true that the armed services are fairly indicative of the demographics of the populace from which they recruit, it stands to reason that ideology would also be similarly reflective. [author’s note: It is worth pointing out that the enlisted force, which makes up the bulk of personnel, is generally more reflective of the general population both in demographics and ideology. The officer corps deviates from this trend and is much more homogenous in race, sex, and class.]
Louis Beam was already a racist and a vocal opponent of the ongoing Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s when he enlisted in the Army. Still, nothing suggested he would commit or advocate for racial violence at the time that he enlisted. As grotesque as it is, he was probably fairly representative of most white men in Texas at the time, and with the pentagon needing a draft to meet its manning quotas, no recruiter was going to pass up a willing participant over a little run-of-the-mill racism. Beam was certainly not afraid to make his fellow soldiers know exactly how he felt about the integrated Army, either. Early in his enlistment, he and another group of white soldiers hung confederate flags in their barracks to protest integration and the fight for equality. Beam went on to see significant combat as a helicopter door gunner and was eventually awarded a Distinguished Flying Cross. He has written extensively about his experience in Vietnam, and while I won’t link to his website here, I will say that you don’t have to read too deeply to realize why he came back with what would later be called PTSD. Like many other veterans of Vietnam, Beam returned home feeling that the Government’s abandonment of the Vietnam fight was, in truth, an abandonment of the service members who fought and died there. He blamed the political left and the anti-war movement for pressuring the Government into leaving Vietnam before the War was won, thereby tying a specific political ideology to his personal grievances. It’s helpful to remember that the anti-war and civil rights movements were closely associated with one another. Beam’s racist inclinations, his intense hatred for communism, and his sense of betrayal by the Government and the political left made for the perfect cocktail for his radicalization.
When Beam returned home to Texas, he immediately joined the United Klans of America, with whom he participated in several acts of anti-communist and racist violence. Later, Beam affiliated with the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, a separate branch of the Klan, and was highly influential in militarizing that sect. Near Houston, Beam started a military training camp where he organized and trained a Klan-affiliated militia group called the Texas Emergency Reserve (TER). In Seabrook, TX in 1981, Beam and the TER were instrumental in driving local white fishermen of Galveston Bay into acts of violence against the Vietnamese refugees who had begun fishing the bay for a living. A group of heavily armed Klansmen intimidated the Vietnamese by burning crosses in town, burning the refugees’ boats, and threatened armed insurrection against the U.S. Government for what they perceived as a failure to protect the white population. Shortly after that, Beam’s writings became influential in founding the white nationalist terror cell known as The Order (author’s note: remember that name), which had plans to instigate an armed revolution against the Government of the United States. He was indicted, along with other White Nationalists, for sedition at a trial known as the Fort Smith Sedition Trial. He was later acquitted.
Louis Beam has remained active in the White Power movement and has been highly influential on the extreme right for decades. I could write another thousand words on him alone, but my point here isn’t to tell you how terrible a guy Louis Beam is (hint: very). Instead, I’m here to illustrate how the education in and exposure to violence he received during his military service made a revolutionary right-wing extremist out of the kind of guy that might have otherwise turned out to be any of our slightly-racist, but not quite genocidal great-uncles or granddads.
I’d like to note a brief incident I witnessed at the Demand D.C. rally and march on August 1st. At the rally before the march, sitting outside of the African American History Museum, I sat with my fiancée and a few other Continue to Serve members. As I sat there, I watched an older white man and woman walk through the crowd towards the corner we were occupying. The man was wearing a Vietnam Veteran hat and had a pretty funny shirt that showed a pug dressed up in the USMC’s dress blues. As the two passed through the crowd, the man raised his middle finger at the stage, where brilliant young Black activists were speaking, and waved it at the backs of what I’m willing to bet he didn’t know were a group of veterans there to stand up for Black lives. It made me wonder how thin the line must be between Louis Beam and Lance Corporal Pug.